Take the Plunge: Practices for Navigating Radical Change

Although I have no statistical evidence to prove it, I’m convinced that when you start practicing yoga and meditation, you invite major changes into your life. Those changes start from within: Maybe your practice alters the way you define personal integrity; maybe it unleashes deep longings in your heart, or shows you truths you’ve been hiding from yourself. Soon, these inner shifts seep into your external life. They make you question the way you do things, and then nudge you to live life differently. You might notice that your practice has triggered a mysterious process that I call “karmic acceleration.” In other words, having a yoga practice tends to speed up the way your relationships and life scenarios play out. Suddenly, instead of putting up with an unhappy relationship or an unsatisfying job for, say, ten years, you may find yourself bulldozing through it in two. And not because you’re flakey!

Most of us who practice yoga will at some point find ourselves facing internally motivated choices that could radically alter our lives.  That’s when we need to know how to bring our practice off the mat so it can help us birth the emerging self that change promises to bring forth—and support us in working with the fear and confusion that change can bring.

I think of all this as I listen to Rita, the 37-year-old owner of a yoga studio in Pennsylvania, who has been contemplating divorce for nearly five years. Her 18-year marriage has long felt emotionally dead. She and her husband rarely make love; much of what they do annoys each other. And their lives don’t match: She’s a dedicated yogi and environmentalist; he thinks spiritual practice is a big yawn and that climate change is still unproven. It’s been years since they talked about anything except household matters and their teenage daughter. Yet to break up the marriage would be to end life as she knows it. After nearly 15 years out of the mainstream job market, Rita is not sure how she would cope financially, much less run her yoga studio without her husband’s support. And then, of course, there is her daughter’s well-being to consider. So, although her gut has been telling her she needs to create a different life, Rita is seized with terror when she thinks about what it would mean to get divorced. And so, she puts it off.

I’m a veteran of several radical life-scenario changes, so it’s not hard for me to imagine how she feels. In my mid-twenties, I ended an unhappy marriage; in my late twenties, I left a perfectly satisfactory journalism career and a world of family and friends to live in a spiritual community; thirty years later I felt called to leave that community, move across the country, and begin an entirely new life.  In two of these situations, it took me several years to take the plunge. I wanted to be sure I was doing the right thing—and let’s face it, life-change is scary, especially when other people’s lives are involved, and you don’t know what is waiting on the other side. Even contemplating a divorce, career change, or cross-country move can bring up core survival fears, which can surface in many ways: as health issues, nightmares, escapist behaviors such as over-eating, lingering indecision, or a counter-phobic tendency to leap out of an old situation without a plan, just to get the whole thing over with.

These core survival fears rise up even when the radical life-change is positive. Stress studies show that “life-enhancing” changes, like getting married, starting a new job, or finally getting a longed-for opportunity, are often just as stressful as negative ones (think of a bride breaking down in tears before her wedding, or the young man who dropped out of a prestigious graduate program at Columbia because he missed his life in San Francisco). In other words, change can be scary even when you’ve initiated the changes yourself. What if people get hurt? How will you live with yourself if your choice turns out to be a disaster?  Do you have the skills to deal with the confusion and chaos of the process? These are some of the questions that paralyze Rita, and they’re the kind of questions that will sometimes keep us lingering in stagnant or painful situations until an outside force makes the move for us.

It’s yoga—in its widest sense—which gives us the strength and the insight we need to navigate the most radical forms of change.  It’s not just that yoga offers tools. Even more important than the practices of yoga are some of yoga’s basic (and highly applicable) teachings—the recognition that we affect the exterior by working on the interior; that behind the diversity of life lies a fundamental oneness; the knowledge that real strength is found in stillness, and that our true self is not the shifting, fearful egoic person that we sometimes seem to be.

One test of our yoga practice is how it serves us during times of big change. Yogic teachings won’t necessarily keep you from feeling scared, overwhelmed, or confused. But they can rise from within you like a wise friend, to guide you through those feelings so that you don’t get lost in them. They can even help you avoid getting mired in indecision, or jumping impulsively without thinking things through.

Over the years, I’ve formed the habit of turning inward during times of transition and confusion, and asking for a helpful teaching. Much of the time, it’s the same teachings that come up again and again. Below, I offer you seven core yogic instructions that will help you navigate radical change.

1. Recognize that change is inevitable.

Buddha’s second Noble Truth is called the truth of impermanence—meaning, change is inevitable, continuous, and unavoidable. Everything changes. Just realizing that fact can protect you from that most disempowering of reactions to change: “Why me?”

What the Buddhists call impermanence, a tantric yogi would call Shakti—the intrinsic, dynamic power of the divine. Shakti is the intelligence of the cosmos, the creative force within all of life. On the deepest level, the endlessly change-full nature of life is the hallmark of Shakti, the cosmic, divine feminine energy that continually brings things into manifest being, keeps them going for a while, then dissolves them. Every moment, every enterprise, every cell is part of this flow of creation, sustenance, and dissolution. This flow is happening on a microcosmic level and at a macrocosmic level simultaneously. It’s happening through the ups and downs of your life, the flow of growth, decay and renewal in your cells and in the world, in the flow of thoughts and emotions in your mind. If you understand the divine nature of the process of change, it becomes easier to greet change with honor, surrender to it, and even partner with it.

2. View the change as an initiation.

In traditional societies, every phase of life was regarded as an initiation into a new way of being, and marked with a ceremony that often asked the initiate to step into the unknown in some way, whether through a prayer vigil, a night spent in darkness, or even answering questions that tested their skills.  Nowadays, we don’t always do the ceremonies, but we still undergo initiations.  Changing careers, moving to a new city, deciding to go back to school or drop out of school are all initiatory experiences, in that they ask you to step outside of habits, test your skills, and, for a time, inhabit the unknown.  More, each of these changes will subtly or even dramatically redefine you. You won’t be quite the same person after you step out of the old situation and into the new. The change itself, if you go through it consciously, is the doorway into the next stage of growth—one that propels you into a deeper relationship with yourself and the world. An example: Twenty-four-year-old Frances accepted a job offer to teach English in Seoul, then freaked when she got there, overwhelmed by loneliness and culture shock. What convinced her to stay was recognizing the ways in which being a foreigner freed her from old self-descriptions and helped her find a new way of being herself. When your life is changing, consider the ways in which the change will expand you, teach you about yourself, show you both your limits and your capacity to move beyond them. The more you can accept this as an initiation process, the easier it is to discover the gifts in change.

3. Practice meditation to stay steady through uncertainty.

The deep uncertainty that arises during processes of change is perhaps the most daunting part of the experience. Why? Because a true change process will involve surprises, reversals, false starts, and periods of coming to a dead halt. In these moments, you’re likely to experience fear, anxiety, anger, irritability, sadness, grief, and the physical and psychological contraction that often goes along with feeling uncertain and unclear. Your gut tightens and your mind begins spinning one of your victim stories: your worst-case-scenario story, or your “I just don’t have what it takes” story, or your “I’ll never get what I need” story. And your next move is nearly always some form of escape. You turn on the TV, or eat something, or call a friend to complain.

But the real antidote to the discomfort of uncertainty is to move into it rather than away from it. You connect to the way the discomfort feels in your body. You let yourself feel it. You let go of the story that inevitably accompanies feelings of discomfort. And you just stay present with yourself, with your feelings, without resistance or expectation. The more you can be present with uncertainty, the more you can let the change process take place naturally and effectively.

It’s much easier to stay steady through a big change process when you have a meditation practice., because meditation teaches you how to keep going back into your center, the core Awareness that is your contact point with the Self, and that aligns your individual consciousness with the heart of the universe. Your meditation practice can be as simple as attending to the breath or repeating a mantra, or as subtle as tuning into the awareness that knows you’re thinking, or as physically centering as breathing into the heart. The important thing is that it connects you to your innate sense of Being, the Presence inside you.

4. Use self-inquiry to uncover your truest desire.

Self-inquiry, or atma vichara, is the core yogic process for navigating change. It’s a simple but effective process of asking yourself core questions, like “What is my true desire in this situation?” “What outcome would be the best for everyone?” As answers surface, write them down.

Next, sit for a moment in meditation, following your breath, until you feel a sense of connection to Presence. Say to yourself, “May my deeper Self, the teacher inside me, tell me what is the right thing to do.” Then ask yourself the self-inquiry questions again and write down whatever responses come up, even if some of them seem irrelevant.

Now, look at what you’ve written and look for common threads that should give you a sense of what your deeper Self wants for you. Getting in touch with your deepest, truest desire will help you organize the entire change process.

5. Make a sankalpa (a strong statement of personal intention).

A sankalpa is a clearly articulated, affirmative statement about what you intend to do. When you make a true sankalpa, you call on the power of your personal will, and align your personal will with the cosmic will. If you have gone through the self-inquiry process and have a sense of what your true desire is, you should be able to make a sankalpa that is in line with your truest wish. The deeper the alignment between your core desire and your intention, the more likely you are to successfully initiate a life-change that supports that alignment.

That said, it’s important to recognize that your sankalpa will change according to the time and the circumstance. At one point, the sankalpa may be, “I have a job that I love and that allows me to spend time with my children.” At another time, it may be, “I am skillfully creating stepping stones to finding a new home.”  At another time it may be, “I am healing my body and my spirit.” Notice that each of these sankalpas is stated in the present tense. That’s because a sankalpa is not merely a wish, or even a statement of purpose. It’s an articulation of direction that brings your goal into the present moment. goal. What gives a sankalpa its strength is that it assumes the outcome is not just certain, but has already occurred.

6. Take action, one step at a time.

The heart of the practice of yoga is abhyasa—steady effort in the direction you want to go. So, when you are initiating a life-change, consider the steps you need to take to make it happen, again using the technique of self-inquiry. Rita, for example, has to consider stepping-stones to a different life. She asks herself, “Where will I live?” “Who will be my friends and support group?” “How will we help our daughter cope with the changes?” “What other sources of income do I have besides the studio?” “How will I pay the studio rent if my husband can’t or won’t?” Thinking through her options and possibilities helps settle Rita’s fears and devise a plan, even though she doesn’t have all the answers to her questions yet.

Once you’ve thought things through, it’s crucial to take action. Effective abhyasa, in the yoga of life-change, is to take things one step at a time so you avoid feeling overwhelmed. Rita’s initial step is to increase her workload with private yoga clients. Her second step is to take a course in Conflict Resolution, an area where she has worked in the past and for which she feels an affinity. Taking actions that could lead her to financial independence gives her the sense of stability and the confidence to begin talking to her husband about a divorce. As you take your first small steps, you’ll usually find that each step leads to another, —and that opportunities begin to show up in response.

7. Practice vairagya (letting go).

One of the positive byproducts of making a life-change, from a yogic perspective, is the opportunity it gives you to practice vairagya, which is usually translated as detachment, or letting go. That means letting go of the past, letting go of the way things used to be, letting go of your fear, your grief, your old relationship, your old job. You don’t want to let go in a ‘hard’ way, forcing yourself to be a samurai of change. Instead, let yourself grieve the losses or feel the anxiety. But then breathe out and imagine that whatever you’re holding onto is flowing out with the breath. Or offer it to the universe with a prayer—something simple like, “I offer this change and everything associated with it. May the results be of benefit to all beings.” You do this again and again, until you experience the feeling of freedom that comes with real vairagya.

In my experience, just remembering to let go—moment by moment—can all by itself be the inner key to navigating positive and radical change.  In fact, if all you learn from your change process is a little bit of letting go, you’ll have received one of the great gifts of change—and you’ll be one giant leap closer to living the life of your dreams.

Sally Kempton is an internationally recognized teacher of meditation and yoga philosophy and the author of Meditation for the Love of It and Awakening Shakti. This article is reprinted from Yoga Journal by permission of the author. Find out about upcoming programs with Sally.